Today, most of us see “local” as shorthand for fresh, delicious food that comes with a story attached—and that serves an alternative to consolidated, anonymous, commodity-based farming. But that hasn’t always been how the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sees it.

USDA is known for creating, subsidizing, and promoting industrial agriculture. So the agency’s effort to dip its toes into the local food movement in 2009 with its Know Your Farmer Know Your Food program (KYF2) raised eyebrows and questions. Could USDA really help create a thriving bottom-up food system? Or would it spread the term local, and the ethos behind it, so thin as to make it meaningless? Read more

Last Friday, August 27, USDA and the Department of Justice hosted the fourth in a series of historic workshops on corporate concentration and lack of competition in agriculture; this time the topic was livestock. With more than 500 ranchers, farmers, workers, and concerned consumers turning out for an evening public forum and an estimated 2,000 people in the audience the next day for the official hearing, it was a chance to generate some long overdue public attention on the vital issue of who is in charge of our food supply. Read more

In late April, a trio of Republican senators––John McCain (AZ), Saxby Chambliss (GA), and Pat Roberts (KS)––wrote an angry letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, debunking a recent USDA program called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” This initiative distributes grant money and loans with the goal of strengthening local food chains and linking consumers with farmers.

The Senators accuse USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan of diverting urgently needed funds from rural communities in favor of: 1) “specialty crops” (the government’s term for fruits, nuts, and vegetables, of which the USDA recommends each of us eat at least five servings a day); and 2) small growers and organic farmers (who the Senators stereotype as hobby producers “whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets.”) Read more

Since the first commercial cultivation of Genetically Modified (GM) crops in 1996, Monsanto and the rest of the big six Biotech seed companies, (Pioneer/DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, BASF and Bayer) have become masters at the art of story telling. Farmers looking for the next big technology fix have loved their stories: the promise of better yields, less chemical need for weed control, higher profits and of course, a solution to the elusive goal of feeding the world.

Governments, seeing biotechnology as a huge economic engine, embraced the technology. University research was shifted almost exclusively to biotech crops. GM was the wave of the future, bankers encouraged planting GM crops to guarantee a “profitable harvest”. Crop insurance premiums were lower for farmers planting GM. Everyone bought the story. Read more

Of the 50 or so food and farm conferences I’ve attended in the last several years, the Drake Forum for America’s New Farmers: Policy Innovations & Opportunities held March 4-5 in Washington, D.C., rises to the top. Actual farmers — not just commodity crop growers but innovative “agripreneurs” like Xe Susane Moua from Minnesota and Rosanna Bauman from Kansas — got to tell the USDA what they needed to survive.

But were policymakers listening? Many of the invited speakers with a political row to hoe seemed to be concerned about one segment of farmers in particular. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack kicked off the conference with the message that to preserve and grow rural America, which is the heart and soul of this country, we need to stop thinking about big versus small and start thinking more inclusively. He shared the usual dismal statistics — the increased unemployment in these areas, the lower per-capita income, and how more than 57% of rural counties have shrunk. All to say, what we’ve been doing to conserve and grow rural America isn’t working. Read more

In Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s op-ed this week in the Des Moines Register, he recognized that hunger could not be solved by raising production, because production is in fact at record highs. Grappling with how these increases in productivity have not led to increases in profit, he explained that even though we’ve lost a million farmers in the last 40 years, “income from farming operations declined as a percentage of total farm family income by half.” He continued, “Today, only 11 percent of family farm income comes from farming, which may explain why fewer young people go into farming and why many families rely on off-farm income opportunities to keep their farms.” Vilsack gets the situation right, but his remedy is wrong. Instead of encouraging diversity and altering the pattern of overproduction which pits large farm owners against small by shrinking margins, the Obama administration’s way of dealing with the discrepancy in rural America is through increasing trade.

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The food safety landscape after the first year of the Obama administration remains very similar to the last year of the Bush administration….

During a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, President Obama gave himself a letter grade of B+ for his first year in office. But all the same, an ad hoc consortium of food safety professionals, food safety advocates, and food safety writers say he deserves some coal in his Christmas stocking. Food Safety News, the best online publication for all aspects of the safety of the global food supply, is running a list of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice this year in food safety. The list was created after polling those mentioned above, including your intrepid blogger. There was an overwhelming consensus that large chunks of coal should be deposited in the Christmas stockings of both President Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for the failure to name someone to lead USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which monitors meat, poultry and eggs. Read more

In the wake of the devastating New York Times piece on E. coli in ground beef, USDA Chief put out a statement yesterday evening:

“The story we learned about over the weekend is unacceptable and tragic. We all know we can and should do more to protect the safety of the American people and the story in this weekend’s paper will continue to spur our efforts to reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7. Over the last eight months since President Obama took office, USDA has been aggressive in its efforts to improve food safety, and has been an active partner in establishing and contributing to President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group.

Bah, humbug. What’s your plan, Tom? Read more

On a recent Sunday evening, nearly a hundred and fifty people decided to drive out to Brentwood, Ca to have dinner and enjoy the harvest hospitality at the Brookside Farm.  Farmer Welling Tom was busy running about – harvesting fruit for the small vegetable stand set up on the edge of the orchard where his mom Anne would sell some pears before being called over to help serve the grilled fish and meats that accompanied their local bounty. Read more

Yesterday, the news wire sparked with some really good news — Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack are joining together to hold public discussions on “competition issues affecting the agriculture industry in the 21st century and the appropriate role for antitrust and regulatory enforcement in that industry.” This is the first time any such talks will have been held on an industry that is massively consolidated and under-regulated.

For example, did you know that in 2006, 83.5% of beef-packing was controlled by 4 companies, same goes for 66% of pork packing, 58.5% of the chicken processing and 55% of turkey processing. Similar numbers exist for the seed companies, the grain processors bringing animal feed to feedlots and HFCS to most of the packaged foods in the supermarket, and the supermarket retailers themselves. Numbers this high indicate a lack of competition. Read more